A new bill would allow a never-before-permitted feature on the internet: “paid prioritization,” in which service providers could make some websites faster if they’re paid to do so.
What is net neutrality?
For years, a government principle called “net neutrality” had allowed the internet to flourish in a way that television and radio never matched. Essentially, it required that all internet service providers — such as Comcast, Verizon, AT&T;, and Time Warner — treat all internet traffic equally.
No websites could be slowed down, made prohibitively expensive to access, or even blocked entirely just because a service provider judged such actions to be financially beneficial or because of the moral views of a service provider’s leadership. For example, pornography can’t be blocked for customers even if the CEO of Verizon was anti-pornography, nor could websites for Democrats be blocked if the CEO of Verizon was a Republican.
But critics contended that these rules were anti-freedom, creating burdensome government regulations that stifled business decisions which should be allowed in a free market.
Votes to dismantle net neutrality
A Federal Communications Commission (FCC) vote in 2015 to potentially dismantle the existing net neutrality rules was considered a toss-up, until swing vote FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler finally clarified his position in favor of the status quo in a Wired op-ed. So many people wrote to the FCC — largely in favor of keeping net neutrality — that it broke the 11-year record for most comments to the FCC, surpassing the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident.
But in December 2017, the FCC once more held a vote to roll back these policies — this time successfully. Wheeler was no longer serving on the FCC because he was an Obama appointee, while Ajit Pai — the FCC member who forced the original vote in 2015 — serving as chairman during the Trump presidency.
What the bill does
The Open Internet Preservation Act would legislatively enforce several components of the internet that most of us have come to know, ensuring the FCC’s ruling couldn’t eliminate those parts — but it does get rid of one major component.
What it gets rid of. The bill would overturn previous FCC rules which prevented “paid prioritization.” Under that system, a website like Netflix could pay an internet service provider like Comcast money so that Comcast users watch Netflix faster. This, in turn, means that other Netflix competitors like YouTube or Hulu would not be as fast for millions of Comcast customers.
Technically this is not the same thing as slowing any websites down, because indeed no websites are “slowed down.” Rather, they run at “normal speed” while another website is sped up.
The bill also prevents states from crafting their own net neutrality regulations. Left-leaning states such as California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington are all planning to implement state-level plans akin to the Obama-era rules, following the FCC’s 2017 vote.
What it keeps. The bill restores or maintains several components of the FCC’s original 2015 Obama-era decision mandating net neutrality. These include a ban on blocking of websites, a ban on slowing of websites, and public disclosure requirements mandated by the FCC of internet service providers.
The federal bill was introduced in December 2017, only five days after the FCC’s vote, by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN7). It’s labelled H.R. 4682 in the House.
What supporters say
Supporters, essentially all of them Republicans, argue the bill will help preserve many of the most popular features of the internet.
“Now that Chairman Pai has successfully done his job of getting the net neutrality rules off the books, we are back to Title I for internet service,” Blackburn said in a video advocating for the bill. “And yes, to preserve a free and open internet — no blocking, no throttling, disclose all of the rules. We’re doing it right now.”
That video, of course, made no mention of allowing paid prioritization — by far the bill’s most controversial provision. Blackburn explained that in a _Washington Post _interview, arguing that unlike the “no blocking of websites” provision, there was much less consensus regarding paid prioritization.
“We have heard from a lot of innovators who are working around [artificial intelligence] and with [autonomous vehicles] and in health-care technology that their preference would be for it to be silent on the paid prioritization issue,” Blackburn told the Post.
What opponents say
Opponents, mostly Democrats but also including some civil libertarians, counter that doubling down on pay-for-higher-speeds would benefit richer companies and punish upstarts. They also say it would ruin the level playing field that the internet has traditionally provided for commerce.
“The proposal… does not meet the criteria for basic net neutrality protections — including bright-line rules and a ban on paid prioritization,” said a statement from the Internet Association, a trade group comprising members including Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Netflix.
“[It] will not provide consumers the protections they need to have guaranteed access to the entire internet,” the statement continued. “Net neutrality in name only is not enough to protect our economy or the millions of Americans that want and rely on these rules”
Odds of passage
The bill has attracted 21 House cosponsors, all Republicans. It awaits a potential vote in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Will it receive a vote there? Committee chair Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR2), released a cautious statement upon the bill’s release, not quite explicitly supportive but at least not opposed.
“I thank Chairman Blackburn for taking the initiative to put forward legislation to help solve a very complicated problem,” Walden said in a statement. “The bill introduced today kicks off this important conversation, and lays the groundwork for Congress to enact broadly bipartisan principles that will preserve the dynamic internet ecosystem that has driven so much growth and innovation over the last two decades.”
(There’s also a Democratic-led bill introduced in December which would reverse the FCC’s ruling, called the Save Net Neutrality Act.)